Here at Penguin Teen, we know that reading is a great way to step into another person’s shoes, to understand someone else’s experience. But sometimes reading isn’t enough. We need to hear from the authors themselves, whether it be about their inspirations for their work or their experiences which lead them here. At Penguin Teen, we want to be a space where authors’ voices can be heard.
Today, we’re here to share an interview with Lisa Bunker, the author of Felix Yz. Lisa spoke to us about her experience being trans in America, especially in the current political climate.
Q: First things first: how do you identify, and what pronouns do you use?
A: Thanks for asking. I identify as a trans woman, and I use she/her/hers.
Q: So that means you were born…
A: That means I was born with a male body, so they assumed that I was a male person on the inside too. But who I am on the inside maps way better onto “woman” than onto “man,” so I transitioned socially, legally, and medically, and now I live as a woman in the world.
Q: Does being trans make your life harder?
A: First of all I have to say, the answer to that question is different for every trans person, and there are lots of people in America today who have a really hard time because they’re trans, facing loss of family, work, housing, living with the threat of violence, etc. I’m better off than most. I do my work and have my life with my partner and family and friends and church, and gender doesn’t intrude. Much.
Q: But it does a little.
A: Well, when I go out in public, I’m always braced for sudden random ickiness. I “pass,” as trans folk say, really well, but every once in a while someone still somehow perceives me as male, and then I get called “sir” or whatever, and it just dumps a load of yuck into whatever moment that is.
Q: A casual word from a random stranger.
A: Yeah, I know, but it matters. When people mis-gender you, it’s like they’re taking away part of your right to exist in the world. And it echoes back to the long dark years of locked-inside loneliness. Also, you’re always aware of the possibility of a fearful or hateful reaction.
Q: Has that ever happened to you?
A: Yeah, a couple times. The one that bothered me the most was when, one of the first times I ever went out wearing women’s clothes, a man in a Goodwill parking lot did a double take as I drove past him and yelled “faggot” at me through the car window.
Q: What did you do?
A: I just kept driving. And went home and cried myself to sleep. And didn’t go out again dressed as a woman for six weeks.
Q: Sounds like transition was hard at times.
A: Yeah, it was. It was a long hard slog and it just about broke me both emotionally and financially.
Q: But it was worth it.
A: Absolutely it was worth it. My other choice was to self-destruct in some way. And to say I am so much happier now doesn’t say it strongly enough. I am so much more real now, because I’m not living behind a mask any more. I have found love, and it’s real because I’m real. And I’ve found success as a writer, and it’s real because the work came clean and clear from the real heart of me.
Q: Trans people are in the news these days because of states debating laws about bathrooms and such, and now President Trump’s tweets about a ban on trans people serving in the military. How do you feel about that?
A: I feel sad and angry about that. What really bothers me is that trans people have become a new political scapegoat. It seems like people with certain political agendas think we’re an easy target because there aren’t that many of us, and because most of the world still doesn’t know anything about us, so it’s easy to paint us as scary freaks who need to be stopped.
Q: Are you?
A: We are not. So totally not. Except for this one thing of our internal gender not matching our outward biological sex, we are totally normal people. And there are trans people from every walk of life, in every culture and religion and political mindset. It’s just a thing that happens to a small percentage of humans when they’re born.
Q: But people are afraid of you.
A: Some people are, yes. And that’s dangerous, because fearful people can do awful things.
Q: So what do we do about the fear?
A: Well, I think the fear comes in two ways. The first is just not knowing. People fear what they don’t know about and don’t understand. And the solution to that is easy: learn. Engage with stories of trans lives. Real stories, not sensational ones. They’re easy to find online – blogs and YouTube and so on.
Q: And the other?
A: The other is tougher. Because I think the mere existence of trans people is threatening to many people. That would be people who have committed to belief systems that have no room for us in their explanations of the world, and/or people who depend on clear black and white categories for a sense of safety. And most of these people are good, decent, honorable people, but just by existing, we trans folk challenge their belief systems or suggest that their neat categories aren’t so neat after all, and that makes them feel unsafe.
Q: What do we do about that?
A: Honestly, I’m not sure. Education is part of it, no doubt. But also, I think, respect is so important. Some of these fearful, reactive people honestly don’t see me as a human being, and that’s so unpleasant for me—terrifying, really—but I think it’s crucial for me to still see them as humans, try to understand them as humans, not as some other kind of imaginary monster to mirror the imaginary monster they’re seeing me as. Once you go there, no real communication can happen anymore. So, just keep being kind and respectful. While still also, always, insisting on my right to exist, my right to dignity, my right to equal protection under the law.
Q: Any good side to being trans in America today?
A: Yeah, sure. There’s a vibrant sense of community, of a movement, a quickly evolving new culture which is so much more open to all the amazing different gender variations that people really truly have and deserve to freely inhabit in the world. It’s thrilling to be a part of that. And transness teaches us about ways to bridge divides. We have so many divisions in our world today, so much mistrust and anger and hate, and trans people can help with that. To use myself as an example, I’ve lived as both a man and a woman in the world. That gives me a unique perspective on gender roles, sexism, misogyny . . . but also the challenges male-type people face figuring out how to express masculinity in our twenty-first century American society.
Q: So you, and other trans people like you, can help heal divisions.
A: If the world will let us, yeah.
Q: If you could say one thing to someone who fears trans people, what would it be?
A: I would say, I’m sorry if my existence makes you uncomfortable, and, believe it or not, I respect your right to your beliefs . . . right up to the point where your beliefs say that people like me are less than fully human. That’s where I have to respectfully disagree, and insist on my complete and healthy selfhood, no matter how squirmy that makes anyone else feel.
Get your copy of Lisa’s book, Felix Yz, here!